Thomas Sugrue: Stories and Legends [of Barack Obama]





[Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay, which appeared in the June 7, 2010 issue of The Nation, is adapted from his book, ot Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton, 2009).]

"Rosa sat so Martin could walk/Martin walked so Obama could run/Obama is running so our children can fly!" Circulated widely during the last weeks of the 2008 presidential election, this short piece of verse encapsulates the relationship of Barack Obama to collective memories of the civil rights movement. It is a story of debt: Obama owes his success to the past generation of civil rights protesters. It is a story of redemption: Obama's political career realizes their dream that skin color be no longer a bar to ambition. And it is a story of hope and promise: Obama's victory will open up extraordinary opportunities to the next generation. The poem is powerful because it unself-consciously provides Obama with a political genealogy in the most important social movement of the twentieth century and offers a teleological view of America on an inexorable path of progress.

Obama himself emphasized his place in the unfolding history of civil rights at key moments during his long presidential campaign, most notably in one of the more extraordinary speeches of his career, in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007, before a mostly black audience at an event commemorating the city's voting rights march of 1965. Joining Obama were Congressman John Lewis; C.T. Vivian, a minister and close aide to the Reverend King; and Artur Davis, a young, black Harvard Law graduate and a Democratic rising star who hoped to be one of the first African-Americans elected to statewide office in Alabama since Reconstruction.

It was one of Obama's most moving speeches, a virtuosic performance, delivered in the sonorous tones of someone who had learned the art of rhetoric from the pulpit of the black church. Obama seemed to be channeling King himself in his cadence, his mix of exhortation and analysis and his easy use of biblical imagery. The speech culminated in an extended allusion to the book of Exodus. "So I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We're in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African-Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America's soul, that shed blood.... Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that's how it's always going to
be." He traced his own lineage to their struggle. "It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate." Ultimately the story was one of liberation from bondage. "The previous generation, the Moses Generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side." Obama simultaneously paid respect to the elders of the civil rights struggle, situated his career as their legacy and offered a story of redemption. For those Americans—especially white Americans—who believed that the struggle for racial equality was nearly finished, these words were a balm....

Barack Obama was, by his own telling, an unlikely Joshua. Born in Hawaii in 1961, he was both too young and too distant from the heart of the black freedom struggle to have direct memories of it. Hawaii occupied a distinctive place in America's racial history: it was a polyglot, polychromatic part of the far-flung American empire, a place with a troubled history of conquest and unfree labor. By World War II, the island territory had become "the first strange place," where the very mixing of Asians, Americans of European descent, native islanders and African-Americans was so transgressive that the military feared its becoming a seedbed of "mongrelization." It is no surprise that Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan national, and Stanley Ann Dunham, a Kansan of European descent, whose courtship and marriage would have been illegal in many states and offensive in most, found Hawaii a propitious place to begin their short-lived interracial relationship in 1959.

If Obama was, in part, the product of a hybrid racial culture in Hawaii, he also came of age in the 1970s, at a moment when notions of race, ethnicity and national identity were in profound flux throughout the United States. It was the beginning of America's age of multiculturalism, when young blacks looked back to a mythical pan-African past and "white ethnics" began celebrating their origins after generations of being uprooted from their ancestral homes and being encouraged to jettison their foreign ways. What had been stigmatized—whether skin color or ethnic heritage—became a source of self-esteem. In one of the most influential journeys of self-discovery in the '70s, Alex Haley took readers and television viewers in search of his own, mostly fictional African "roots." Haley's lesson, that to know your history was to know your authentic self, reflected an increasingly influential current in mainstream American education and culture in the 1970s....

By the time Obama moved to the Windy City in the summer of 1985, he was both a voracious reader of civil rights and black history and a keen observer of black social movements, and had arrived at a sophisticated understanding of the syncretism that defined black politics. In an essay from 1988, Obama argued that "from W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and boardroom negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches." Obama perceived the fundamental pragmatism that animated the long black freedom struggle: few activists were ideologically pure. They debated, revised and reformulated their political positions, rejecting strategies that did not seem to be working, experimenting with new ones and forging alliances that, to many outside observers who expected ideological consistency, seemed unlikely. Civil rights and black power were fundamentally intertwined in ways that most commentators—trapped in a binary framework that pitted the two against each other as irreconcilable—could not grasp.

Obama's description of the synergies between integration and nationalism, between Martin and Malcolm, was an apt description of black politics in the post-'60s years. Over Obama's lifetime, the color of American politics had changed dramatically. In 1965 only 193 blacks held elected office nationwide; just twenty years later, when Obama began working as a community activist and political organizer in Chicago, that figure had risen to 6,016. But black politics defied simple characterization. Some politicians were the heirs of black power, particularly those with safe seats in overwhelmingly black districts, who did not depend on white electoral support and who could use explicit race-based appeals to rouse their supporters. They had incentives to adopt a politics of race pride and consciousness. In the handful of majority-black cities (notably Newark, Gary, Washington and Detroit), black candidates often donned dashikis, engaged in theatrical denunciations of whites and described their candidacies in terms of black power, even though many real black power advocates lacked the patience, the political skills and the willingness to be "co-opted" by the two mainstream parties necessary to win elected office. Conversely, many ostensible militants made their peace with white business leaders and civic elites....

The political potency of black consciousness left a deep impression on Obama. He observed that Chicago's blacks talked about the mayor "with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative." It was Harold, not Mayor Washington (just as it had been Martin, Malcolm, Huey and Jesse—and, twenty years later, in barbershops, churches and the black blogosphere, it would be Barack). Black loyalty to Washington was, in part, a matter of group pride, but also a matter of self-interest. Political power brought real economic benefits to urban blacks. By the 1960s, the public sector had become an important avenue of upward mobility for black workers, even if they had been confined mostly to unskilled, bottom-of-the-rung jobs like sanitation work. In many cities, including Chicago, municipal jobs were unionized and secure, with generous health and pension benefits, and they provided a compelling alternative to rapidly disappearing manufacturing work. But black workers were not satisfied with entry-level, manual labor. Empowered by the civil rights movement—and its call for jobs, dignity and freedom—they demanded inclusion in better-paying, mostly white firefighting, police, teaching and clerical jobs. And black businesses demanded access to lucrative city contracts. Like other black mayors, Washington hired more black workers, expanded affirmative action programs and extended more contracts to minority-owned firms, in the process undoing years of machine neglect....

For Obama, as for all political leaders, history provides a scaffolding for politics: it is full of inspiration, examples, lessons and analogies. The past can be used—and reinterpreted—for purposes of image creation, political mobilization, coalition building and policy-making. Political actors create a useful past, sifting from it what resonates with their constituents, opinion leaders and the general public, whitewashing those elements that are jarring and unsettling or inconvenient. And Obama did that with King. The history of the civil rights struggle—told through Moses and Joshua and King—was a historical theology, a civic religion, a fundamentally Christian story of suffering, martyrdom and redemption. King had cleansed America from its original sin of slavery, and Obama was his heir. By the time Obama was inaugurated president, he had recast himself as an agent of national unification, one who could finally bring to fruition the few lingering, unmet promises of the civil rights movement. What Obama called "my story" became "our story."...


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